Do I Need A Tune After Installing Cold Air Intake?

By August 5, 2020October 18th, 2020Common Questions, Performance Modification

So you just installed a cold air intake and are wondering – “Do I need a tune? What happens If I don’t?“ A lot of people don’t tune their car after installing one anyway. But should you? 

For a quick answer – no, you don’t need to tune your car after installing a cold air intake. Tuning your car is expensive and for doing it only to optimize a cold air intake is not worth the money.

A cold air intake is a cheap and easy upgrade that does not require tuning. It will work well, without a tune and it will not cause any damage to your car if not tuned.

I remember reading up about ECU and tuning and did not understand anything. If that’s also you – I got you covered, my friend. We will take it nice and easy.

How Does Cold Air Intake Work Exactly?

Before we rush into decisions, we must first understand the internals. A car generates power by igniting fuel – which creates a combustion that absorbs oxygen. The more oxygen you have, the bigger combustion you can have. So… if more power is what you want, then more oxygen is what you need!

A cold air intake helps in just that – it allows more cold air to enter your car. If you remember your science from high school, you know that cold air is more dense. Cold air contains more oxygen molecules, which make them heavier and denser – causing them to sink. Focus on the part where I say more oxygen. If cold air has more oxygen, does it mean that your car can create more powerful combustion if it uses cold air instead? Absolutely! Enter cold air intake.

A cold air intake re-routes the placement of your car’s air intake into a place with colder air – usually closer to the front wheels, away from the hot engines. A cold air intake also has more surface area and is more exposed – allowing much more air to flow in. Lastly, a high end cold air intake usually equips a heat shield – meaning it does not allow hot air to enter. All in all, a cold air intake does two things:

  • Allows your car to suck more air in
  • Allows your car to suck cold air
Cold Air Intake Image
Cold Air Intake

What’s ECU?

Almost there… Before we talk about tuning, we must first understand what’s an ECU. In short, ECU is a car’s computer – responsible for many important things such as controlling how much fuel should be injected into the combustion chamber. ECU actually does much more than that – but this is all we need to know for now 🙂 

Remember I said more oxygen allows your car to create more powerful combustion? That’s still true. However, powerful combustion also requires more fuel to be injected into the combustion chamber. Lots of fuel + Lots of Oxygen = Huge combustion. My point is, to have a more powerful combustion, you need more of both – without more of both, you won’t have more power!

This however, should not be a problem. An ECU makes decisions by getting input from your car’s sensors. If the Mass Air Flow sensor (MAF) indicates that there is a lot of incoming airflow, your ECU knows that it should inject more fuel to burn off all the oxygen and create that bigger combustion to deliver you the power. 

Image of a car ECU
Car ECU

How Does ECU Work?

I just told you half of the ECU magic (Half of what I planned to tell you anyway). The ECU gets its input from sensors in your car like the MAF, then it knows what to do. But how exactly does the ECU know what to do? I introduce to you the lookup table. When ECU gets a reading, it finds the appropriate output by using the lookup table. For instance, when air is flowing in at 50 grams / second, then inject this amount of fuel into the combustion chamber. I don’t exactly know the number and this is over simplified, but you get the point 🙂 

What’s Car Tuning?

Car tuning is changing the values in the lookup table. Usually this is done to improve performance and other times it’s done to ensure your new hardware install is optimized to the fullest. You see – with modern cars, car manufacturers have a lot to worry about:

  • They need to abide to government regulations
  • They need to ensure emission is as low as possible
  • The car must be safe and pass all the tests
  • The car must appeal to as wide audience as possible

Aside from just the performance, car manufacturers have so many other things to worry about. But to people like us? Performance is all we care about… Am I right?. Well, we care about the sounds too of course – but performance first, boys. 

This is where engine tuning comes in. Modern cars usually come undertuned – you can get more performance and aggressiveness by tuning the values in the ECU such as changing air to fuel ratio, ignition timing, removing the rev limit and many more. Even if you can’t get an improved top speed, you can tune your car to perform at its peak for different rev ranges. So instead of having an increased top speed, you will have more speed and acceleration in lower rev ranges. 

I have been talking about tuning the car for performance. However, you can also tune the car to gain maximum fuel efficiency. It’s just a matter of changing the values in the ECU. I won’t get into more details on how to tune, because you have to make a decision on the cold air intake right?! Okay Okay… let’s discuss tuning and that cold air intake. 

Car Tuning

What Happens If I Tune For Cold Air Intake?

As you should already know by now – a cold air intake increases the airflow and amount of oxygen into the combustion chamber. Stock ECU might only be able to handle airflow to a certain degree – anything above that, and your ECU will not increase the amount of injected fuel. Moreover, your ECU might not be able to tell that the incoming air has more oxygen in it. 

You might be wondering – don’t cars have oxygen sensors? they should know that there’s extra oxygen in the incoming air. This is partially true. Cars do have oxygen sensors – but they are located after the combustion chamber at the exhaust system. This means, your car will know that there’s extra oxygen, but only after the combustion are done. We need the car to know about the extra oxygen before the combustion happens, not after! 

So if you tune your car for the new cold air intake, your car will know to inject more fuel with the increased airflow and oxygen. This results in a possible increase of even more horsepower – just slightly though. This also means that your cold air intake is utilized at its maximum. Yay! Sounds pretty good huh? Well, yeah – except the cost to tune your car starts at about $400. Yikes!

What Happens If I Don’t Tune For Cold Air Intake? 

You probably already guessed it. Without the tune, your car will not utilize the cold air intake at 100%. I am not saying that the cold air intake will not bring change – it will. I am just saying that it’s not utilized to its full potential. At a lower RPM, your ECU will still notice there’s more airflow and more oxygen. But at a high RPM, the change won’t be noticeable. But I mean – it’s a cold air intake, cheap and easy to install. Don’t expect the world out of it.

So, Should I Tune My Car After A Cold Air Intake?

From my personal opinion – no. You don’t need to tune your car to ensure the cold air intake is fully utilized. As I said, a cold air intake is a cheap and easy upgrade. It’s the most popular upgrade for beginner enthusiasts. Though it aims to provide you with more performance, it will only provide a little more – up to 5 horsepower at the very best. 

Most people will not tune their car for a cold air intake anyway. Without the tuning, the cold air intake will provide you with slight increases in performance and a wonderful change in engine sound. Also, it looks cool as hell if you pop your hood open. I say the advantages the cold air intake brings without tuning is already worth the price. There’s no reason at all to go the extra mile and get it tuned. If you are worried about damaging your car if you install a cold air intake without tuning – then don’t. It most likely will not damage your engine in any way. 

If you would like to know more about cold air intake, I have an article discussing that topic here. If you want to know about the car changes a cold air intake brings, then I cover that here.

Well, that’s all I got in store for you today. I hope you find it helpful. See you around!

Ifandi S.

Ifandi S.

Passionate about everything mechanical. Ifandi has been involved with motorcycles and cars since the old days - in his family's auto parts shop. Want to keep in touch? Scream "STRAIGHT PIPEEEEE" at the top of your lungs and Ifandi will show up.

Car Performance Boss

Best resources online to improve your car performance!

Reach out:

  • hello@carperformanceboss.com
  • shop@carperformanceboss.com (Shopping related)